Yesterday morning around 6:30 AM, I woke to discover my block surrounded by fire engines, police and ambulances. Our good friends lost their home in a blaze that rose at least eight feet above the roof. So yesterday, when I’d planned to craft a really neat blog post, I was down the street with my other neighbors trying to figure out how we were going to support our friends in their time of need. Thankfully, they were on vacation so no one was hurt. But the house is a total loss. The fire fighters were incredible, however.
Anyway, my first thought was to write on the history of fire fighting and how it evolved from neighbors passing buckets of water to organized teams paid by the city, but it required more research than my tired brain could handle after the day I'd encountered, so that may be a post idea for later. In the meantime, I’d written an article several years back on how to start a fire out in the open (for cooking purposes, of course) and thought I’d rework it for this post.
In 1800s, they didn't have the convenience of stovetop cooking or a microwave and while most kitchens boasted a wood-burning stove, cooking outdoors for a crew of hungry cowboys would look a lot different than what it might today.
For the few scenes I’ve written involving cooking outdoors, I drew on my own experiences camping as a girl scout. We always had what was called a fire circle, a cleared place encircled with rocks. To begin, we dug a pit and fashioned what is called a key hole, a large groove that angled from the ground surface to the pit and provided air to the fire. My favorite style of fire was the A frame where we'd fashion an A with three smaller logs, then set the tinder and kindling against the horizontal crossbar of the A.
I remember one particular fire that I was trying to build. It was dusk and difficult to see, but we wanted roasted marshmallows. I fanned it until I was blue, determined to light it with only one match. The wood was damp and not cooperating, but I could see the glow of one spark and just kept fanning. Finally, we determined that the glow was a piece of orange yarn. Too funny.
After the fire is lit and coals begin to form, a grate is placed over the hole. Coals provide the most heat for cooking. We have in our possession a very large, flat griddle that is about twenty inches by twenty. My husband’s uncle made the griddle in the early to mid 1900s. I can just imagine the many meals cooked on it. We cooked a variety of foods from chicken and rice to chili to flapjacks to cake on the open flames. It was a fond time and one I hold dear.
For the cowboy with minimal supplies, he’d have to resort to using flint. Dried grass and leaves would allow for good starter material. The modern cowboy would probably have dryer lint with him as this is very flammable and an excellent starter. Starters are slow to medium burning items that will smolder until the wood catches.
If no cook wagon was around to carry Dutch ovens or grates, a spit could be fashioned from green wood. Yaupon is a native tree of Texas and grows in the Southeastern states. Green branches from this tree make excellent skewers for roasting meats. When wood was scarce for those crossing the plains, pioneers resorted to burning buffalo chips. It always amazes me the resourcefulness of our forefathers.
In my story, Once Jilted, Shauna takes the job of crew cook and has to learn to cook on an open fire. I used a lot of my own experiences as resource for this scene:
Though it took a while to scrounge all the ingredients, she decided on flapjacks for the morning meal. Lefty had shown her a four-legged flat griddle that was large enough to cover the fire pit. She dragged and situated the large cast iron plate over the glowing coals, leveling it with a rock under one corner.
After putting on a pot of coffee, she made sure she had all the ingredients she needed then mixed a large bowl of batter. Testing the griddle, she pronounced it hot enough and poured several spoonfuls of batter onto the sizzling surface. Next to the frying cakes, the water in the coffee pot began to boil. She smiled, pleased with her efforts.
"Ach, woman. Have you noo sense?"
She dropped the spatula, fell back on her bottom, and met the angry glare of Kane. "I’m cooking. Isn’t that why I’m here?" She righted herself and picked up the spatula, dusting off the grains of dirt.
"Aye, I can see that you’re cooking." He squatted beside her and placed one knee on the ground. "Has noo one ever taught you how to cook over open flames afore?"
She shook her head.
“Ne’er bend over like you were doing, lass. You’ll end up with your skirts ablaze or your palms burned. You have noo balance perched as you were.”
“I thought I was doing just fine.”
“Stubborn bird. Always put one knee to the ground like so,” he said, indicating his own position. “This will force your skirts oot of the way and give you the balance you need. Try it.”
She did as requested and found he was right. She flipped a perfect flapjack onto a plate and forgetting her annoyance, beamed at him. “Want to be the first to sample my cakes?”
An odd expression stole over his features. He rose without comment and walked away. She stared, dumbfounded. What had she said?